lodging

Ignacia Guest House: A Colonia Roma Gem in Mexico City

Looking for Mexico City hotels? Book one of the color-themed suites at this charming and chic boutique hotel in one of CDMX’s safest neighborhoods.

The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

In Chicago it had begun to feel a lot like winter and we’d already experienced our first snowfall. So the opportunity for Wally and I to temporarily escape the cold weather for sunshine and 70-degree temperatures in Mexico City (aka CDMX) was just what the doctor ordered.

The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The Ignacia Guest House

The first thing I do when planning a trip is secure lodging. In my research, I had discovered a couple of charming neighborhoods, or colonias — one of which was Colonia Roma.

This charming tree-lined neighborhood, filled with a mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, is the setting for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie, the critical darling Roma. Located on Jalapa Street, one of these historic gems is the Ignacia Guest House, which was our home away from home for five nights. The stylish boutique hotel takes its name from its former beloved housekeeper Ignacia, who lived and worked at the house for more than 70 years.

This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

Inside the former estate, the palette is restrained to pale pink-colored walls, which truly allows the custom furnishings, lighting and artisanal objects chosen by interior designer Andrés Gutiérrez to shine.

The front sitting room at the hotel

The front sitting room at the hotel

A variety of magazines and other publications are available

A variety of magazines and other publications are available

(Make sure to check out the super-chic bathroom with its oxblood channel tufted wall panels and illuminated vanity mirror located next to the reception desk — you’ll thank me later.)

On every trip I become obsessed with a particular item, and in this case it happened to be the burnished terra cotta vacas, or cows, that could be seen atop the console table beneath a woodcut image of Ignacia in the main house and on the countertop of the patio bar. Romina Argüelles, one of the guest house managers, told us that the artisans who make these only create one or two per year. Needless to say, there’s quite a waiting list.

Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Elements of the historic mansion, which dates to around 1913, have been lovingly preserved and restored, including the window frames, doors, wood floors, ornate plasterwork and pressed tin moldings. That’s thanks to Fermín Espinosa, architect and cofounder of Factor Eficiencia, a Mexico City-based design and construction firm. While the common rooms have been repurposed, the largest and most luxurious suite, Negra, is the only one located in the former mansion and is connected to the additional rooms by an enclosed steel and glass corridor.

This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

Between the two structures is an intimate central courtyard patio containing cacti typical of Oaxaca, with ivy-covered walls and a rectilinear steel-clad fountain gently gurgling in the middle. The garden also contains a pair of majestic orange trees planted by Ignacia herself after she began working at the house in 1929.

Looking down upon the courtyard patio

Looking down upon the courtyard patio

Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The modern two-story addition stands just beyond the original home and is a geometric combination of glass and steel where the other four monochromatic suites, Rosa, Amarilla, Azul and Verde, are found. The palette was inspired by Ignacia’s memories of growing up in the town of Guerrero.

Breakfast is made daily from scratch in the kitchen, the recipes culled from Ignacia’s extensive repertoire. Each breakfast comes with freshly squeezed orange juice, a choice of coffee or espresso drink, seasonal fruit with muesli, yogurt and honey, and a basket filled with buttery puff-pastry orejas — as well as a main dish. One nice touch: They remembered how we liked our coffee the following morning, and every morning thereafter, bringing me a café americano and Wally his latte with leche light, the local colloquialism for reduced fat milk.

Where breakfast is served each morning

Where breakfast is served each morning

The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

After our first breakfast, the delightful Romina checked in with us to see how our flight was and gave us a quick tour of the guest house, pointing out the two woodcut portraits of Ignacia by the artist Pau Masiques and commissioned by the property’s co-owner Gina Lozado. One depicts the Ignacia at the age of 16, the other at 87. “She was the heart of the home,” Romina told us. As she finished the tour, she let us know that cocktail hour is held between 5-7 p.m. “Maybe we’ll have some local snacks,” she said with a grin. I had a sneaking suspicion of what that might mean.

The Azul room

The Azul room

Azul Like It

We stayed in the Azul suite located off the central courtyard to the left. Our room included a screen print of the Castillo de Chapultepec by graphic designer Miguel Alpulche and maple flooring with inlaid dark walnut arrows that led us to guess, correctly, that it was reclaimed from bowling alley lanes!

There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

A Nespresso machine sat atop the dresser and we were told that the television is set up with Netflix, a nice feature we didn’t bother to use. There’s artesian bottled water from Casa del Agua adorned with line drawings of whimsical steampunk contraptions (never drink the local water, and use bottled water even when brushing your teeth!), and natural bath products by CDMX brand Loredana inside the bathroom, which is covered floor to ceiling in Carrara marble.

When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

Courtyard Cocktails and Our First Crickets

The courtyard patio was also where we returned in the evening to enjoy cocktails and snacks at the bar. Our first evening, the cocktail was a refreshing combination of freshly squeezed fruit juice, mezcal and an ancho chile liqueur rimmed with sal de gusano, pulverized maguey worms with chili powder, and garnished with a sprig of mint, which reminded me of the rebujitos Wally and I enjoyed in Seville during Feria.

We struck up a conversation with Magda Navarrete, another one of Ignacia’s managers, who asked if we’d be interested in trying a local snack. I perhaps too eagerly agreed. When she returned from the kitchen, she had a small ramekin filled with crispy, salted chapulines, or grasshoppers. She was so endearing, we figured what the hell, we might as well try it.

I popped the grasshopper into my mouth. “Respect!” Magda called out. Wally, meanwhile, grimaced as he swallowed his chalupine. “It’s not bad — except when you feel the little legs catching on your throat,” he said.

If you’d prefer to embark on a hands-on culinary adventure, you can take a cooking class and spend the day with chefs Beto Estúa and Jorge Fitz at Casa Jacaranda, located in the same building as the Ignacia.

Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

With so much to see, it was impossible for us to fit everything on our original itinerary into one trip. Wally and I are already dreaming of our next visit to CDMX and staying in one of the suites at 208 Jalapa Street. And while the spirit of Ignacia may have lent the property its character, it was the incredible staff that made our experience memorable. –Duke

A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

Ignacia Guest House
Jalapa 208
Roma Norte
06700 Ciudad de México
CDMX
México

Alila Ubud: A Luxury Resort Nestled in a Jungle Valley

Can we just talk about the amazing infinity pool at this Bali hotel? And the amazing food? And the monkeys scurrying about?

This was the breathtaking view we awoke to every morning

This was the breathtaking view we awoke to every morning

By the time I began looking for places for Wally and me to stay in Ubud, Bali, I was faced with an overwhelming amount of choices. I wanted to be close to the town’s cultural center, temples, shops and restaurants, but far enough away that it would feel like a retreat from the inevitable throngs of tourists. One look at an image of the epic infinity pool overlooking a landscape of tropical jungle greenery on the Alila Ubud website and I was hooked.

The infinity pool consists of a slim rectangle of water whose edges disappear into the terraced jungle hillside.
The resort is comprised of groups of villas scattered throughout the compound

The resort is comprised of groups of villas scattered throughout the compound

When we landed at the Ngurah Rai International Airport, it was well after midnight and buzzing with new arrivals. Apparently we weren’t the only flight to reach the isle of Bali so late at night — or early, depending on how you look at it. After collecting our luggage, we met our chauffeur outside the terminal and asked if the airport was typically this crowded. He replied with a smile, “Yes, always.”

The pool really is the star of the show at the Alila

The pool really is the star of the show at the Alila

Alila Ubud

Our base for our Bali trip was the Alila Ubud, which is just over an hour’s drive from the airport. Located high up in the mountain village of Payangan, our real adventure began once our driver turned onto a private meandering road that led to the resort. It was well after 2 a.m. when we checked in, following a nearly 24-hour journey from Chicago. The concierge warmly greeted us at the reception pavilion, offering us cold towels and jamu, a traditional Indonesian healing tonic.

The open-air lobby at Alila, where helpful staff are always on hand

The open-air lobby at Alila, where helpful staff are always on hand

The concierge escorted us to our room and instructed us to secure the patio doors leading to the balcony to prevent a wild monkey infiltration. “Does it have a name?” Wally asked. To which the concierge replied, “No, there are many.”

This group of monkeys gathered on the wall outside our room

This group of monkeys gathered on the wall outside our room

Alila, formerly the Chedi, was conceived by the acclaimed firm Kerry Hill Architects. The sprawling, tranquil complex is surrounded by rice terraces and is roughly 15 minutes from Ubud, the enclave that exploded exponentially after Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir and subsequent movie, Eat, Pray Love.

There’s lush tropical foliage in every direction you look

There’s lush tropical foliage in every direction you look

The hotel’s layout was inspired by traditional Balinese hillside villages and has been adapted to the site’s topography. Paths meander past the property’s rooms and private treehouse-like guest villas. Stepped walkways evoke the surrounding terraced rice paddies. Paying respect to traditional Balinese architecture, local materials have been thoughtfully incorporated into its design, including hand-cut volcanic stone, alang alang grass thatch and coconut wood. Stones from the Ayung River were used in the steps and exterior walls. As a result, the Alila’s earthy palette harmoniously blends with the landscape surrounding the resort.

The neutral tones of the buildings at Alila blend in well with the natural environment

The neutral tones of the buildings at Alila blend in well with the natural environment

The elongated open-air dining pavilion, Plantation, is located beneath a grass canopy supported by soaring palm pillars and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The executive chef behind the signature restaurants creations is Erwan Wijaya, whose menu features regional Balinese and international cuisine using locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Service was friendly and impeccable. We had the pleasure of being attended to on more than one occasion by the lovely Marianthi.

The Plantation restaurant pavilion

The Plantation restaurant pavilion

A typical breakfast at Alila: fresh baked goods, a trio of smoothies, coffee and nasi goreng (pink sunglasses Wally’s)

A typical breakfast at Alila: fresh baked goods, a trio of smoothies, coffee and nasi goreng (pink sunglasses Wally’s)

Exotic fresh fruit, including snakefruit, starfruit, pomelo and pineapple

Exotic fresh fruit, including snakefruit, starfruit, pomelo and pineapple

Wally likes pink drinks best

Wally likes pink drinks best

Breakfast options changed daily and we were always excited to try the trio of shareable juices and smoothies, tropical fruit plate, assorted pastries and varieties of nasi goreng. Plus, the coffee was excellent and brewed to order. We tried to exclude Western fare, but one morning we did cave. I tried the bostock brioche French toast with almond cream and Wally the eggs Benedict, which were equally delicious.

Our room at Alila. Wally particularly loved the mosquito netting

Our room at Alila. Wally particularly loved the mosquito netting

A Room With a View

We stayed in an understated superior room, which was cozy, with its vaulted thatched ceiling and limestone floors. Our king-size bed was shrouded in netting, which Wally loved to close in the evening, picturing himself, no doubt, as a Victorian-era naturalist traveling through the tropics. Also sharing our room was a gecko who chose to evaluate us from afar, perched high upon the wall. One night, we were awoken by a couple of monkeys fitfully skittering across our rooftop.

Curious George pays a visit to our balcony

Curious George pays a visit to our balcony

Our room included small touches with a big impact, including refillable glass bottles of water that were replenished daily and eco-friendly reusable bamboo straws.

After sightseeing and wandering Ubud, the private balcony attached to our room was the perfect perch to unwind and enjoy a quiet moment to read. We were happy that our room was centrally located, near the pool and restaurant. The complex, which seems to stretch for miles, required a few guests to be transported in golf carts to reach their rooms.

We hired a driver and ventured out daily, but if you decided to stay on the resort grounds, the Alila offers bikes for exploring the outlying area, an art gallery that features regional arts and crafts, a small boutique and a spa.

Every morning before breakfast, Wally and Duke had a swim in the pool as the sun rose

Every morning before breakfast, Wally and Duke had a swim in the pool as the sun rose

Duke leans on a wall near the resort’s spa

Duke leans on a wall near the resort’s spa

To fill in time between meals and relaxing, the Alila offers complimentary afternoon coffee and tea with an assortment of bite-size desserts. They even offer nightly entertainment, including movies by the pool.

The stairs are lit at night

The stairs are lit at night

The Cabana Lounge opens to the infinity pool

The Cabana Lounge opens to the infinity pool

The bar in the lounge — also where they set up tea, coffee and nibblies in the late afternoon

The bar in the lounge — also where they set up tea, coffee and nibblies in the late afternoon

The hotel’s shuttle service has fixed arrival and departure times, but we found it fairly easy to hire a cab for about $6 to return us to the resort. The staff was personable and always wished us a good morning. When we would return after a day’s exploration, they welcomed us back, addressing us as Mr. Duke and Mr. Wally.

A group of chaises longues at the edge of the valley

A group of chaises longues at the edge of the valley

To Infinity and Beyond

The infinity pool consists of a slim rectangle of water whose edges disappear into the terraced jungle hillside. Our room’s proximity to the pool made it easy to have a quick swim every morning before breakfast, steam rising from the water as the sun rose.

Morning yoga classes overlooking the pool were held at the Cabana Lounge, where guests can take in views of the forest while holding a warrior pose.

The infinity pool seems to flow out into the valley beyond

The infinity pool seems to flow out into the valley beyond

A minor criticism is the internet system, which required entering a complicated code for every use. This is particularly irritating on a smartphone, when you are logged out every time the phone goes idle. On top of that, the signal was weak at every time but the middle of the night. Our jet lag-induced insomnia was the only time we were able to use wifi.

The Alila is surrounded by gorgeous, green rice terraces

The Alila is surrounded by gorgeous, green rice terraces

Paths wind throughout the complex and its environs

Paths wind throughout the complex and its environs

Maybe it’s because Wally is a Taurus, but Duke is obsessed with the Nandi bull

Maybe it’s because Wally is a Taurus, but Duke is obsessed with the Nandi bull

Looking out at the mist-covered tropical greenery as we left on our final morning, Wally and I reflected upon our stay, knowing we had been somewhere special, a place we wouldn’t soon forget. –Duke

Our rooms were conveniently located near the restaurant and pool

Our rooms were conveniently located near the restaurant and pool

alilaubuddetails.JPG

Alila Ubud
Desa
Melinggih Kelod
Payangan, Gianyar
Bali 80572
Indonesia

Plataran Borobudur: A Luxury Resort in a Dream Setting

Looking for a Borobudur hotel on Java? Pamper yourself at a private villa with your own pool in the hills above the scenic Buddhist temple.

Our villa at Plataran Borobudur

Our villa at Plataran Borobudur

The Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa ticked all the right boxes for Wally and me. From its proximity to the iconic 9th century Buddhist monument Borobudur, which could be seen in the distance from our private villa’s very own infinity pool, the decision was easy.

The private infinity pool had a view of Borobudur in the distance

The private infinity pool had a view of Borobudur in the distance

Owned and developed by Indonesian entrepreneur Yozua Makes, the secluded Plataran Borobudur Resort, part of the Plataran hospitality group, is a one-of-a-kind luxury retreat nestled in the hills in Tanjungan Village in Central Java.

When Wally saw this tub, he knew he’d be taking a bath in it before the trip was over

When Wally saw this tub, he knew he’d be taking a bath in it before the trip was over

Even though it was late at night when Wally and I arrived, weary from our delayed flight, after a 90-minute drive from the Yogyakarta International Airport, we were greeted with a smile and offered cool towels and welcome drinks at reception. While completing the check-in process, I heard a melodious chirping and asked if it was a nocturnal bird. I was informed that it wasn’t birds at all — it was geckos!

Wally mimics the Buddha in front of a bell that evokes the stupas of Borobudur

Wally mimics the Buddha in front of a bell that evokes the stupas of Borobudur

Wally and Duke chat with the charming and helpful Mia, the resort’s manager

Wally and Duke chat with the charming and helpful Mia, the resort’s manager

The concierge assisted us with our luggage and escorted us to our Executive Pool Villa, which would be our oasis for the next few days.

The villas have these doorways in the middle of the jungle with steps that lead down to the room

The villas have these doorways in the middle of the jungle with steps that lead down to the room

Set back from the path leading to the villa were a pair of weathered wood doors, with stone steps beyond that led down to our private courtyard. The spacious, airy interior featured minimalist décor, a king-size bed and a bathroom with a dramatic tub and rain shower. The bottled water wrapped in natural cotton fabric sleeves atop the dual washbasins was a nice touch.

Wally peeks from wooden doors that lead to our villa complex

Wally peeks from wooden doors that lead to our villa complex

A pair of sliding wood shutter doors leading into the villa regulates the amount of sunlight when closed and allows daylight in when open while still maintaining privacy.

Wally basks in the sun

Wally basks in the sun

Duke also enjoyed having a private infinity pool

Duke also enjoyed having a private infinity pool

On our first day, we decided to keep our itinerary open and barely left our villa. When we awoke that morning, it was the view that struck us first. Mist hung heavy over the lush greenery surrounding our villa. The sun’s rays bathed Borobudur temple in golden light, and one of the local volcanoes, Mount Merapi, made a brief appearance before coyly disappearing behind the clouds.

Birds splashed in the water at the edge of our private pool while butterflies fluttered by and dragonflies whizzed through the air. We didn’t waste much time before changing into our swimsuits and jumping in.

This planter once served as a signpost

This planter once served as a signpost

Even the ceiling of this open-air pavilion was impressive 

Even the ceiling of this open-air pavilion was impressive 

The name Plataran means “God’s favorite courtyard,” and it’s easy to see why. Hidden amongst the palms and towering teak trees, each of the 21 standalone villas blends in with the stunning local landscape, and are modeled after the traditional Javanese joglo house. Their steeply pitched pedestal clay tile rooftops are built to resemble stylized mountain peaks.

We opted to spend the afternoon exploring the grounds and stopped off at the reception lobby to confirm the details for our sunrise visit to Borobudur. A gamelan musician with a serene smile was playing a xylophone-like instrument.

A gamelan musician played soothing tunes in the lobby

A gamelan musician played soothing tunes in the lobby

This structure offers Muslim staff members a place to worship during the call the prayer — which seemed to happen quite often

This structure offers Muslim staff members a place to worship during the call the prayer — which seemed to happen quite often

Each location offers a variety of pre-arranged tours including a driver and guides. Wally and I threw in 60-minute spa treatments. If you’re going to relax, you might as well to go all in, right?

While wandering the grounds, we stumbled upon a menagerie of animals at the foot of a hill, including a flock of adorable spotted deer, a bashful peacock, a strutting male turkey that Wally named the Colonel and more than a few wild grouse roaming freely.

If you’re interested in horseback riding, a stable and riding compound is available. It’s visible from the reception area.

The horse run and stables off to the side of the reception building

The horse run and stables off to the side of the reception building

We’re not sure if this is the horse that tried to bite Wally or not

We’re not sure if this is the horse that tried to bite Wally or not

We did of course leave our room every morning for the impressive breakfast buffet served at the Patio Joglo, an open-air pavilion with a telescope smartly positioned for viewing Borobudur. This amazing spread included assorted pastries, fresh tropical fruit and juices. One of my faves was the jamu kunyit, a blend of galangal, tamarind and turmeric. A main course of traditional Indonesian or Western fare is included.

The scruptious breafast buffet

The scruptious breafast buffet

The adorably tiny eggs benedict Wally ordered one orning

The adorably tiny eggs benedict Wally ordered one orning

Breakfast was served with coffee, and Wally’s request for an iced latte was happily accommodated. On our first morning, we met the lovely Ni Komang Darmiati, the resort manager, who goes by Mia. While deciding what to get, she suggested an off-the-menu item, the delicious nasi goreng magelangan, a local riff on the country’s national dish. The aromatic meal included a mix of rice and glass noodles topped with a banana leaf hat. Small but potent green peppers were distributed into the dish and packed a pleasantly surprising amount of heat.

Nasi goreng magelangan combines rice and noodles

Nasi goreng magelangan combines rice and noodles

The resort’s signature dining restaurant, Patio Colonial, overlooks the resort’s pool and was constructed as a Dutch Colonial plantation house with a wraparound porch. Filled with historic memorabilia, it serves a tasty mix of Indonesian and international cuisine.

The main restaurant at Plataran Borobudur is modeled after a Dutch Colonian plantation house

The main restaurant at Plataran Borobudur is modeled after a Dutch Colonian plantation house

The dining room

The dining room

The bar

The bar

Complimentary afternoon tea is served with a variety of Indonesian snacks on the open-air rooftop deck atop the three-story reception building, offering compelling views of the Menorah Hills and Borobudur.

Tea is served every day on the rooftop terrace

Tea is served every day on the rooftop terrace

In addition to tea and coffee, snacks are provided, incluidng chips, hors d’oeuvres, fruit and sweets

In addition to tea and coffee, snacks are provided, incluidng chips, hors d’oeuvres, fruit and sweets

Wally and I were well taken care of by the friendly and courteous Haris, one of the servers we spoke with on more than one occasion during our stay. Like all the staff at the resort, he consistently and courteously replied, with an ever-present smile, “My pleasure” after every request.

Duke and Wally snuck into the Kastil, a private event space

Duke and Wally snuck into the Kastil, a private event space

The Kastil proved quite photogenic

The Kastil proved quite photogenic

Our four days at the Plataran Borobudur was the relaxing break that we both needed before heading back to reality. The wonderfully helpful Fuad and Merry made us feel as though we were guests at a friend’s luxurious estate for the duration of our stay.

A fruit bowl at our villa

A fruit bowl at our villa

Stepped pathways wind through the hills in the jungle throughout the grounds of the resort

Stepped pathways wind through the hills in the jungle throughout the grounds of the resort

You could stay at the hotel adjacent to Borobudur, or you could pamper yourself at a first-class resort with your own private pool. Really, the choice couldn’t be more simple. –Duke

Girls Trip to Tulum, Mexico

The best restaurants, bars and things to do in this Riviera Maya hotspot.

Girls gone wild! What a day in the sun (and too many margaritas) can inspire you to do in Tulum #freethenips

Girls gone wild! What a day in the sun (and too many margaritas) can inspire you to do in Tulum #freethenips

It was the picture of a line of topless girls on the beach (seen from behind) that really got me.

I asked my former colleague and friend Megan if she’d be willing to write up a post about her trip to Tulum, Mexico. When I visited about 15 years ago, it was a sleepy getaway from Playa del Carmen, popular with backpackers and yoga enthusiasts. Then the Hartwood came.

The water is so vibrant it practically burned my retinas. We took to the ocean immediately and dove in and out of the waves, channeling our inner mermaids.

Megan really captured the spirit of the coastal town that has grown up so rapidly in the past decade. –Wally

Megan, a swinging single having a blast in Tulum

Megan, a swinging single having a blast in Tulum

Paradise Found

After spending weeks resisting responding to a chain of emails with the subject “February girls trip to Mexico!!!” I gave in and bought a flight on New Year's Eve. I didn't think I really wanted to go to Tulum with 10 girls I didn't know, but I'm easily persuaded by champagne. The girl organizing the trip was a close friend of mine, but everyone else was either an acquaintance or someone I'd never met.

The amazing Airbnb the girls found in Tulum (the hot neighbor was an added bonus)

The amazing Airbnb the girls found in Tulum (the hot neighbor was an added bonus)

Fast-forward to February 2018, and we descend upon Tulum from every corner of the U.S. and Europe (thanks to The Organizer having friends in California, Massachusetts, Florida, Virginia, Illinois and Germany). We rented a wicked Airbnb with a pool, two kitchens and a really hot next-door neighbor who was sunning himself in the communal pool upon arrival (we aptly named him Mexican Jesus, to give you a visual). We all decided we like this place and I decided these girls are probably pretty cool after all.

Photos can’t fully capture the cerulean beauty of the Caribbean

Photos can’t fully capture the cerulean beauty of the Caribbean

Setting sight on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula after a grueling 12-hour trek from L.A. was when Tulum really hit me. The water is so vibrant it practically burned my retinas. We took to the ocean immediately and dove in and out of the waves, channeling our inner mermaids. Tulum has a spectacular natural landscape, with lush jungle on one side and wild cerulean ocean on the other. Pictures can't do it justice.

The girls hunkered down at Aura beach club all day, then changed into their party dresses for nights on the town. Look closely: You can see one of the gals flirting with a hot Spaniard

The girls hunkered down at Aura beach club all day, then changed into their party dresses for nights on the town. Look closely: You can see one of the gals flirting with a hot Spaniard

It didn't take us long to figure out that getting cabs with 10 girls was a nightmare. As dope as it was, our house was far from the beach bars and clubs Tulum is known for. We managed by taking everything we needed for the day and night to the beach with us to minimize our commute and maximize drinking time. We spent most of our days bunkered out at the beach club our Airbnb host recommended, Aura. It wasn't anything too fancy, but it was run by three tattooed Spaniards who brought us an endless supply of margaritas and giggles, so we were happy.

Not a bad place to spend your days…

Not a bad place to spend your days…

Megan's Best of Tulum

The tasty ceviche at La Zebra, washed down with a great local IPA

The tasty ceviche at La Zebra, washed down with a great local IPA

Top Restaurants

La Zebra Hotel: Gorge views, great for breakfast, lunch or dinner, even if you're not a guest.

Hartwood: Wood-fired restaurant with hyperlocal fare. Dinner only.

 

Top Places for Drinks

Gitano: Chic jungle restaurant. Slip on a sexy dress and be ready to dance.

Papaya Playa: Good old-fashioned beach party, from what I remember (not much).

when you happen upon the perfect daybed in the jungle #elevatedlounging

A post shared by Megan Dawson (@megpandawson) on

Top Pool

Casa Malca: Pablo Escobar's old digs turned funky-sexy hotel. Great photo op.

Seven girls swim into a cave… No trip to Tulum is complete without an exploration of the limestone sinkholes called cenotes

Seven girls swim into a cave… No trip to Tulum is complete without an exploration of the limestone sinkholes called cenotes

Top Things to Do

Tulum ruins and cenotes with Sergio: Private tour of the beachfront Maya temple complex and limestone sinkholes in an air-conditioned van stocked with snacks and beer with the coolest local.

Biking along the beach strip: So much more efficient than taking cabs and also a fun way to explore.

Mayan Clay Spa: Get a mud treatment at this spa — it's insane. They massage warm mud into your whole body, including your face and hair, and then you rinse it off in an outdoor shower in the jungle.

Go glamping! Megan peeks her head out of her “tent” at Nativus Tulum

Go glamping! Megan peeks her head out of her “tent” at Nativus Tulum

Top Place to Stay

Nativus Tulum: Glamping locale I stayed at for a night when the first round of girls left. You're literally in a tent, but a big nice tent, with a full bathroom that's outside. It's incredible, and they serve an amazing breakfast. Plus it has a private cenote and is on the beach road you'll want to be located on.

Yes, the waters of the Caribbean are delightful — but it’s nice to have a private pool as well

Yes, the waters of the Caribbean are delightful — but it’s nice to have a private pool as well

Top Tips

  • Brush up on your Spanish — you'll need it.
  • Stay within walking or biking distance to the beach.
  • Get to the ruins very early in the morning to avoid crowds (and heat).

 

Favorite Moments

  • Taking the spontaneous topless photo with all the girls after too much sun and too many margaritas.
  • Trying to score weed with Mexican Jesus and failing miserably.
  • Running into my older brother, his husband, and my nephews by complete coincidence.
Tulum has a spectacular natural landscape, with lush jungle on one side and wild cerulean ocean on the other. Pictures can’t do it justice.

Kovalam: A Hippie Haven in Kerala

This small beach town in South India isn’t your typical Indian experience — but it has its own intensity.

A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

Most people who travel to India don’t do so on a whim. But Kelly was at an impasse in her yoga practice and sought a spiritual kickstart. So when she saw that David Garrigues, a yoga instructor she admires, would be in a small beach town in the South of India, not five minutes had passed before she had booked her ticket.

Here Kelly shares her life-changing Indian spirit journey. –Wally

Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

In Kovalam, all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.
All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

Tell us about Kovalam.

It’s a small town on the beach, but super touristy. Apparently, Kovalam used to be this hippie haven. I remember on my second day there, I was sitting in this restaurant overlooking the ocean and looking around and being like, What are all these random people doing here at the edge of the world? You have these old ladies from Russia who are decked out in all of this costume jewelry, and you have the beautiful, sleek yogis and the Brazilians who are there backpacking through India, and it just seemed like such a strange group of people who had gathered there.

Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

The other thing that struck me was the overwhelming sense of anonymity. This was a place I could navigate as my true self versus the self that I have cultivated here with my friends and work.

Most of the locals spoke English, which I didn’t expect. I’ve heard a lot about India, but I think the experience of this town was a lot different. Though I will say there was a certain amount of chaos — leaving the airport in Trivandrum and getting to Kovalam was insane: people on rickshaws and bikes weaving in and out of traffic.

It seemed like everything was in a different stage of being constructed or being torn down. And there were people burning garbage, fires lining the street, and all this new construction, and in front of that, there’d be old men in loincloths selling fruit. It was this bizarre mix of new construction and old tradition.

Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Where did you stay in Kovalam?

I stayed at a place called Johny’s Beach House. It was like stepping into a jungle. It’s only four rooms. But he has this huge garden — there are literally monkeys that will climb through the trees there.

Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

Johny built Johny’s Beach House, this hilarious, quirky treehouse, four years ago and he’s been running it ever since. He comes from this really small village and worked his way up in the tourism industry in Kovalam and now he’s the highest-rated place to stay. Which all of the other hotels are really baffled by because they don’t understand why this tiny little treehouse four-bedroom B&B is the top-rated place. But the thing is, when people stay there, they aren’t rating the B&B itself — they’re rating Johny, because he is such a personality, with this quirky sense of humor and is super engaging and really creative. That is his space, and it’s completely a representation of him.

Breakfast at Johny’s

Breakfast at Johny’s

Every morning Johny would make me this porridge with bananas and cardamom and different nuts when I’d get back from yoga. And I’d eat it on my balcony and read my yoga books. It was beautiful.

 

Did you ever feel unsafe in Kovalam?

There was only one time. I was coming home late. In Kovalam, the way that the town is structured — all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. I bet they’re 7-foot walls. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.

That was the challenge: getting anywhere. Google Maps doesn’t have all those tiny twists and turns, so I would literally allot 40 minutes to get to a place because I was like a mouse in the middle of a maze — even if it was a 5-minute walk away. Because the sidewalks were built around the homes, there would be dead ends; the sidewalk would turn into a dirt path that would go into somebody’s house. I got lost a bunch of times and one time had to be rescued.

It’s actually sad. Johnny told me that as the tourism industry took off in Kovalam, a lot of these hotels and restaurants and visitor homes built up the walls to prevent locals from entering their properties. And so in way, it was this discriminatory measure, to appeal more to the tourists.

It was a problem if you were coming toward a group of men and they didn’t make any sign of moving. That happened a few times, and it’s very intentional — people do that on purpose with women.

A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

There was one time I was coming home late. There was a little dog I made friends with while I was there and it hung out outside of Johny’s Beach House and it would follow me around everywhere. I would go find it in the morning and he would follow me to the market or the beach. So he was my little buddy for two weeks.

This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

Did you name the doggie?

He was just little Sweeters. So this one night I was walking home and there was a drunk man who I think was maybe following me. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was starting to get that danger feeling, and a few moments later, I heard the dog start growling. Sweeters was snapping at the man. So I ran to the gate, opened it really fast and shut it.

 

What was it like being in such a small town?

Everyone watched your every move. The locals would ask, “Where are you from? Where are you staying? What are you doing?” And then they’d track me. They’d say, “Oh, I saw that you were at the blah-blah-blah the other day.” Or I’d meet somebody at a restaurant and they’d say, “You’re studying with David.” Everyone knew everyone’s business, which was really crazy.

People would ask me, “Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” It was very intrusive.

You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

What was the most interesting Indian custom you encountered?

I really like the head bob. I had to ask Johny, “What does this mean?” And he was like, “Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.” And I was like, “Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.”

But I also found myself kind of doing it.

Because Johny and I became friends, I was able to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to as a tourist. I spent a lot of time on the back of Johny’s motorbike, clinging on for dear life, struggling to breathe through the pollution. But it was like seeing this area through the eyes of a local.

We went to this really bizarre restaurant in Trivandrum. It seemed like this restaurant was a converted version of a twisty parking garage ramp. There are all these booths along the far wall as the restaurant spirals upward. I guess it’s the place to go in Trivandrum if you want coffee or dosa, which is like a crepe.

Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

What was the food like in Kerala?

I’m obsessed with food. But surprisingly, I was underwhelmed.

The yoga studio that I go to in Chicago, the owner was coincidentally in Kovalam at the same time, doing a completely separate retreat. So I spent a lot of time with his people, and he had a house and has been going there for 20 years. He knows everything about Kovalam. And he had a neighbor friend, this woman, who made all of this food for us for our final meal. It was thali [the Indian version of tapas] served on a banana leaf — it was definitely the best meal that I had.

Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Kelly: What does the head bob mean?

Johny: Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.

Kelly: Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.

Top Tips for U.S. Travel to Cuba

For Americans traveling to Cuba, here’s advice on what to do in Havana, from the jinetera prostitutes to staying at a casa particular.

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

“I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Cuba,” our friend Joe says. “Any place someone tells you you can’t go, you of course want to go to.”

That kind of comment is par for the course with Joe. He’s the kind of fun-loving guy who views life as an adventure — and his enthusiasm is contagious.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

With such a tantalizing (and forbidden) destination so close to the United States, Joe and his boyfriend Scott had planned an illegal excursion to Cuba by flying through Canada.

Then, suddenly President Obama reversed the United States’ long-standing travel ban, and Joe and Scott booked a trip within a week. (Of course, President Trump has made it more difficult to travel to Cuba, part of his attempt to undo everything Obama accomplished.)

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Joe and Scott flew down to Miami, Florida and booked a $500 charter flight on an Aruban air carrier.

“It was a surreal experience,” Joe says. “We were some of the first people we know that got to go.”

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

Here are some of Joe’s tips about what to expect and how best to enjoy a vacation in Cuba. (Just keep in mind that Joe himself admits that he’s a tad prone to exaggeration.) He says that four days in Havana should suffice.

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

Keep in mind it’s a Communist country.

There are hardly any ads anywhere, and you won’t see large supermarkets. Instead, there are shed-like structures where people line up every morning to get their rations. Sounds like something out of Animal Farm.

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

If you see an open door, go in.

This is very Joe — he’s the type to sneak into a building and worry about getting in trouble later. He insists, though, that this was some of the best advice he got during his research, perusing blogs and travel guides about Cuba.

Once you go through the door, climb up to the rooftop and you’ll be able to take a gorgeous picture of the Havana skyline — and really get a feel for the shabby beauty of this city.

Just be careful, Joe warns. There could be loose wires hanging down, and the stairwell might be so dilapidated your foot could fall through a step.

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

You have to be prepared for the money situation.

Because there are no ties to American banks, you can’t use credit cards or U.S. currency, and there aren’t any ATMs available. That means you’ve got to plan for how much money you think you’ll spend on your entire trip and bring that with you.

“It’s very nerve-racking,” Joe tells us. He wishes they had brought an extra $500 so they had a nice cushion and weren’t constantly worried they’d run out of money.

The two of them converted their money into Canadian dollars and then into CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. $1 US = 1 CUC, but most everything in Cuba is “dirt cheap,” according to Joe. (The one exception: Cuban cigars are still expensive.)

To make things more confusing, locals use one currency, and tourists another.

Havana is a crumbling, withering, exotic and alive city. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and — despite years of neglect — too damned beautiful.
— Joe

Don’t fall for money scams.

Joe and Scott obviously weren’t the only Americans frustrated with the money situation. A swindler on the street insisted he could take them to state banks that would let them convert money, but it ended up being a wild goose chase. The man of course still wanted to be paid for his time and effort.

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Understand exactly what you’re getting with a casa particular.

When Joe was looking into accommodations, he wanted to find something akin to Airbnb. He found what’s called a casa particular, and the place looked wonderful in the pictures. Best of all, it was only $30 a night.

“Lower your expectations, though,” Joe warns.

He and Scott arrived at the building, “which looked like a prison — I like to embellish a bit,” Joe adds in an aside. They climbed up to the 7th floor and were greeted by an extended family lined up in the living room, from niños to abuelos. One of the family members gave Joe and Scott a key and pointed to a door in the corner of the room. The two of them went in and kept whispering to each other, “They’re gonna leave, right? Right?!

No such luck. Turns out they were just renting a room, and the family remained during their stay.

It ended up being all right; the mother cooked them and the children breakfast every morning, and they made their best attempts to communicate or just kept to themselves.

“You’re gonna rough it a bit,” Joe says. “But really: AC, a toilet and a bed — that’s all you need.”

They ended up staying at the casa particular, but looked into hotels. The rates were affordable. “If you pay much more than $60, you’re paying too much,” according to Joe.

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

Cubans tend to be OK with gays.

On the plus side, Joe says they don’t aggressively punish people for being gay in Cuba. They’re starting to get more open-minded, he adds, and there’s a small gay scene along the Malecón, the waterfront strip downtown.

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

Watch out for the whores.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana, Joe says. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

One day Joe and Scott were sitting at a café, when a Cuban woman who had teeth missing started chatting with them. They thought it was great to meet such a colorful, friendly local. Then she disappeared, soon returning with two young jineteras in tow. Turns out she was a madam and wanted to pimp out a couple of her girls!

Joe took Scott’s hand and indicated that the two of them were together. “You should have seen the look on their faces. They acted like they had never heard of such a thing,” Joe says, laughing.

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Learn the secret to a perfect siesta.

Remember how you’re supposed to go into every doorway you come across? Joe especially recommends this with hotels. In the afternoon, after a morning walking in the blazing sun, he and Scott would head to a hotel and go straight up the stairs.

“Every hotel has a rooftop pool and bar, so that was our afternoon delight,” he says. “We took naps there instead of our room.”

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The shopping isn’t great.

There’s not a huge tourist economy in Cuba, though it’s somewhat popular with Canadians and Europeans. Joe found that many locals hadn’t met too many Americans.

He was surprised and disappointed to discover that there weren’t any local handicraft markets like you’ll find in other parts of the world.

And because Joe and Scott were worried about running out of money too soon, the two of them did most of their shopping at the airport before they flew home, loading up on Caribbean rum.

They did hear about a big shopping warehouse by the harbor. “There was booth after booth,” Joe says, “but it was all the same T-shirts and crap. And it all said, ‘Made in Canada.’”

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Search out (or stumble upon) the secret cafés.

As Joe has suggested, “You really do have to walk into every building you can.” Some of them will suddenly open into what can only be described as gorgeous interior courtyards that house cafés.

“Walking through Havana really is a voyage of discovery,” our intrepid traveler tells us.

 

Take a “cab.”

The taxis in Havana aren’t anything like those in the United States, Joe says. They could be a flatbed truck you’re sitting in the back of, holding on for dear life. “Whatever has wheels could be your cab,” he explains.

Needless to say, there aren’t any meters in the cabs, so tell your driver how much you’ll pay and agree on a price before you even get in.

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Visit the Colón Cemetery.

One of the cab trips Joe and Scott took (in the previously described flatbed truck) was out to the Colón Cemetery. Like us, Joe loves graveyards and added this one to their itinerary. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the Americas, and once housed the remains of Christopher Columbus — before his body was relocated elsewhere.

You can spend a pleasant couple of hours wandering the elaborately carved stark white monuments near a lemon yellow chapel.

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

See a show at a historic hotel.

Wanting to go to one of the famous Tropicana shows, Joe and Scott got tickets for the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a large hotel on the Malecón, where mobsters and celebrities hung out in the gilded past.

The show was everything they expected: “a definite Caribbean feel, with Carmen Miranda types in frilly shirts and bongo drums,” Joe says.  

“I kept waiting for Ricky Ricardo to come out,” he adds.

“Did you see Charo?” Duke asks, to which Joe exclaims, “Everyone is Charo there!”

 

Bring goodies for the kids.

As Joe mentioned, the Cuban people get only the essentials. As such, the kids don’t have many toys.

Joe hit up Target and brought toys and school supplies and books and Barbies and balls.

“We spent one day just handing out toys,” Joe says, “like a gringo Santa Claus.”

Don’t just think about the kids, either: “The women will bow at your feet if you bring them a hair scrunchie!” Joe adds. “It’s better diplomacy, PR for Americans than Trump’s policies.”

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Get out of the city and hit the beach.

Joe and Scott decided to take a day trip to Varadero, a beach destination three hours away. They stayed at an all-inclusive resort, where everyone was very friendly and the beach was beautiful.

To get there, they could have taken a cab for about $70, but with their cash limited, they decided to hop on a rickety old bus, which took them to Varadero for about 10 bucks.

 

Be a bit daring when you visit Havana, Cuba — and adopt the party lifestyle. You’ll see people listening to music and dancing everywhere you go. You might as well join them. Who knows when you’ll next be able to visit what Joe calls the Forbidden Land? –Wally

The Flower Cart. #Cuba #havana #carribean  #streetphotography #urbandecay

A post shared by JK_Urban / Joe Koecher (@jk_urban) on

See more of Joe’s amazing photography on his Instagram page.

Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette: Your Oasis in Chiang Mai

East meets West at this chic boutique hotel.

The open-air lobby of the Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The casual chic 19-room Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette is perched on the east bank of the tranquil Mae Ping River in the Wat Ket district of Chiang Mai. The premises are a 15-minute walk from the Old Quarter, where ancient Buddhist wats (temples) and winding sois (side streets) await. It’s close to the action and yet seemingly a world away from the tourist hordes.

What makes the hotel even more spectacular is its saltwater infinity pool. We made it a priority to immerse ourselves in its refreshing water once a day.

One of our many favorite spots at this charming boutique hotel was the saltwater infinity pool

Inside, the minimalist, airy central courtyard opens dramatically, serving as the main architectural element that connects the main floor with the restaurant and guest rooms. Composed of concrete walls, the clean-lined contemporary structure was designed by the Bangkok-based husband and wife team Sitt and Preechaya Therakomen of Studio Agaligo. Along one wall, crisp white quatrefoil porticoes offer a glimpse of the outside world, contrasted against a dark gray wall. A rectangular pool containing goldfish is flanked by a pair of Tang Dynasty-style horse statues.

Taking cues from the enclave’s Chinese merchant past, Thai interior designer Rachan Chokenana has woven elements of chinoiserie throughout the hotel’s public spaces.  

What makes the hotel even more spectacular is its saltwater infinity pool. We made it a priority to immerse ourselves in its refreshing water once a day.

 

We stayed in one of the Willow Suites, with our own patio in a quiet courtyard

Get a Room

We stayed in one of the Willow Suites, located on the ground floor. The room was intimate, but the 14-foot-high ceilings made it feel spacious — plus we had our very own private terrace with a nook to relax with a good book. The room’s interior is thoughtfully laid out and included a mini refrigerator that’s stocked with bottled water daily, a real plus when you are heading out first thing in the morning and don’t want to stop for provisions.

Our bed at the Ping Silhouette

Luxurious textures and materials like quartz, marble and brass make up the bathroom. A sculptural vessel sink and a dark green tiled shower, complete with a rain shower head, gave us serious bathroom envy.

We dined on the patio every morning in the Café des Artists

Café des Artists

 The hotel has an onsite restaurant that occupies the ground floor off the courtyard. Named Café des Artists, the interior references the merchant shophouses that once occupied the alleyways of the Wat Ket neighborhood. A black steel and glass wall serves as a partition with glass louvers that open to the outdoors.

Breakfast kicks off with these delicious beignets

This fresh basket is just one of three courses included with breakfast

You can get a rice dish for breakfast — or eggs, if you prefer

Accents of green and blue used in the restaurant echo the narrative of the hotel’s public and private spaces. Vibrant touches, including bursts of freshly cut brightly colored orchids displayed in blue and white ginger jars, are balanced by the staff’s monochromatic cement gray three-quarter sleeve jersey cotton shirts paired with modern-cut linen wrap pants.

Turn left to the coffeeshop; turn right for the restaurant

We sat on the covered outdoor patio every morning and gazed out onto the terrace, which is filled with graceful willow trees whose branches flutter gently in the breeze, or are perhaps swayed from the weight of a lone squirrel racing from one branch to another. In the early morning, the sound of myna birds is replaced by an orchestra of cicadas.

It didn’t take long for the friendly and attentive staff to learn our coffee preferences

For breakfast, Wally and I enjoyed the delightfully decadent fritters served with a delicious dipping glaze in a small bamboo steamer basket. These were followed by an assortment of fresh fruit, sliced into wedges, including dragon fruit, watermelon, honeydew and papaya. Toast is served in a small paper bag with a silver butter spreader. Wally particularly liked the creative variation on eggs Benedict, which are perfectly paired with a curry twist.

A bright blue floor and chair offer a delightful surprise at the top of the stairs

Above you, pink paper lanterns offer a bit of modern whimsy

By blending local elements with modern amenities, the Hotel Ping Silhouette provides a comfortable and memorable stay. Honey and Bird, who manage reception and concierge duties at the hotel, are outstanding and found us an excellent driver to take us to take on a day trip outside the city.

Duke peeks from an opening in the three-story lobby

The waitstaff, including Ball, Keng and Tan, remembered our room number and our afternoon coffee preference: an iced unsweetened latte for Wally and a Thai iced coffee for me.

Duke rests by the Ping Silhouette’s front door

Wally plays in a detail off the lobby

If you’re visiting Chiang Mai, we highly recommend Ping Silhouette, where the grounds are gorgeous, the style astounding and the service impeccable. –Duke


Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette
181 Chareonraj Road
Wat Gate
Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand

137 Pillars House: Where Luxury and History Meet

Searching for Chiang Mai hotels? How’s a personal butler, serene grounds and an epic pool sound?

The Drawing Room at 137 Pillars, a lovely spot for tea

The Drawing Room at 137 Pillars, a lovely spot for tea

While researching our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I came across the fascinating story of the meticulous restoration of the former Borneo Trading Company headquarters, which was transformed into the stunning 137 Pillars House luxury hotel. As luck would have it, this special place was located in the Wat Gate enclave, where we were staying. 

Upon our arrival at the property, we stopped in at reception, where we were welcomed by a lovely woman named Charm, who led us along a footpath through the lush and serene compound to the original teak homestead where the eponymous Jack Bain’s Bar, named after its previous inhabitant, is located.

The plan was to have it as a vacation home. But the new owners decided, we can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to share this with everyone.
The Jack Bain’s Bar got a whole new look (and an actual bar!) last year

The Jack Bain’s Bar got a whole new look (and an actual bar!) last year

A Trip Back in Time at the Jack Bain’s Bar

The spirit of the past still lingers in the air, and you feel as though you’re stepping back in time as you enter the intimate space. A photo of two of the home’s illustrious past residents, Jack Bain and Louis Leonowens, hang behind the bar.

Louis was the son of Anna Leonowens, the tutor to Prince Chulalongkorn, son of King Mongkut, from the fabled story of Anna and the King of Siam, or more famously known from the fictionalized 1950s Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Louis joined the Borneo Trading Company in 1886 and established its Chiang Mai headquarters in 1889. He was the first resident of the home.

 The bar is named after Jack Bain, whose father bought the compound from the company.

“Jack was a colorful character and a bit of a playboy. He loved drinking and loved the company of women, which was quite the opposite of his Scottish father, William” said Santhiti Arunsit, who goes by San, the director of sales for 137 Pillars.

His family compound remains close by.

The bar’s interior was refurbished in December 2016 — it used to have more of a library feel, and there wasn’t an actual bar. A luxe leather-tufted bar was added, giving the interior the aura of a prestigious British gentleman’s club. Black and white images documenting the history of the Borneo Company hang on its richly paneled walls, and jazz music plays through the speakers.

We sat upon an avocado green leather grid-tufted sofa and met with San, our cordial host for the afternoon.

One of the most luxurious hotels in Chiang Mai, 137 PIllars has a rich history

One of the most luxurious hotels in Chiang Mai, 137 PIllars has a rich history

He had recently visited the 32-story sister property in Bangkok, which includes 179 residences and 34 suites on the top nine floors. Located in the capital’s Thonglor business and shopping district, the hotel boasts a rooftop infinity pool with 360-degree views of the city.

“It carries the same DNA as 137 Pillars but is more modern,” with such features as a freestanding circular bathtub that comfortably fits two, San told us, adding that every property will have a Jack Bain’s Bar.

I contemplated getting the theatrical Signature Cocktail, which is served in a flaming coconut, but in the end I’m a sucker for a well-crafted old-fashioned. The Jack Bain’s Bar version does not disappoint and is appropriately named the Aged Teak, which Wally and I both chose. 

The Aged Teak cocktail is a take on an old-fashioned — but with cinnamon smoke in a cloche for a dramatic reveal

The Aged Teak cocktail is a take on an old-fashioned — but with cinnamon smoke in a cloche for a dramatic reveal

We were captivated as we observed the bartender masterfully prepare our drinks. After mixing the cocktail, a piece of cassia bark, the tree that cinnamon comes from, was burnt over the boozy beverage and a glass cloche placed atop. This imbues the cocktail with a slightly smoky note and makes for a spectacular presentation. Like a genie leaving its bottle, a wisp of cinnamon-scented smoke escapes the glass when the cloche is lifted.

 

The grounds of the hotel are gorgeous and quiet

The grounds of the hotel are gorgeous and quiet

The History of the 137 Pillars House

When Bangkok-born Panida Wongphanlert arrived in Chiang Mai looking for a relaxing getaway from the capital city’s frenetic pace, I’m betting she had no idea the role a centuries-old colonial teak estate would play.

After enjoying the laidback northern city of Chiang Mai as a casual visitor, Wongphanlert began putting some serious thought into purchasing a weekend home there, where she could stay when she desired an escape from urban life.

Encouraged by her family, she repeatedly revisited the northern city intent on finding the perfect vacation home. On one of these sojourns, she discovered the historic residence referred to by locals as the Baan Dam, Black House — so called as the teakwood had acquired a sinister and charred hue, due to natural weathering and the repeated application of linseed oil by its previous inhabitant to ward off termites. It’s located in the Wat Gate district, where foreigners, many of whom were involved in the teak trade, were required by law to live at that time.

These bicycle tuk-tuks sit out front of the 137 Pillars hotel

These bicycle tuk-tuks sit out front of the 137 Pillars hotel

Wongphanlert was told that the property belonged to the Bain family, and when she was granted permission to the visit the compound, the house was vacant, neglected and hidden by dense tropical overgrowth. The walls of the structure sagged, but despite this, the charm and character as well as original features, including detailed fretwork, remained intact.

Once she learned the layered history of the Black House, Wongphanlert fell in love with the property and felt compelled to share its story. With the vision to return the homestead to its former greatness, and the permission of Bain’s eldest daughter, she acquired the compound in 2005, and the Wongphanlert Holding Company was established.

 

Scale and Potential

“The original plan was to have the home as a vacation home,” San told us. “But they decided, we can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to share this with everyone.”

To get it right, Wongphanlert, herself a trained architect, sought to restore the weathered teak homestead, which took over four years, enlisting the expertise of Chiang Mai University architect and lecturer Julaporn Nathapanich. She also collaborated with Habita Architects on the design of the surrounding British colonial-style structures to create a relaxing 30-suite luxury hotel. The suites are named after three of the original founders of the West Borneo Trading Company.

The distinctive heritage Anglo-Malay-style structure that houses the Jack Bain’s Bar gives the hotel its name: 137 Pillars (alluding to the number of teak posts that once elevated the structure to protect it from flooding). Architectural elements, such as the ornamental fretwork, had to be painstakingly repaired, revived or created anew.

Step into another world behind the whitewashed wall 

Step into another world behind the whitewashed wall 

This approach maintained the integrity of the original teak house, which involved moving the house via hydraulic lift — “slowly,” San says — to the middle of the property. Deteriorated parts that were unsalvageable were removed and faithfully reproduced, keeping the historical features intact. The pillars were replaced, and the structure was raised, allowing adequate air circulation beneath the building to avoid rot. Load-bearing steel beams were added to ensure structural integrity. If floodwater comes, it doesn’t compromise the structure above.

During this process, an odd mix of relics was discovered, including an Edison light bulb, crockery fragments, ornate wood carvings, bottles and even a bathtub. A few of these curiosities are now displayed under the home next to the glass-walled gym.

The Dining Room serves up breakfast and Asian dishes

The Dining Room serves up breakfast and Asian dishes

The homestead now accommodates two restaurants. Palette is so named as it features the works of local artists, and the striking Dining Room, in an adjacent building, with indoor and outdoor seating, is where breakfast is served daily. Palette offers Western cuisine and the Dining Room serves Asian food.

137 Pillars also offers a cooking class where guests can learn how to prepare Thai cuisine. Appropriately named the Kitchen, you are not simply shown how to prepare a dish but are taken to a local market, accompanied by the instructor, to shop for ingredients.

 

Two of the hotel’s cabañas

Two of the hotel’s cabañas

Garden Sanctuary

The grounds were transformed by landscape design studio P9. The old house provided the starting point and conceptual foundation, making it the foremost element within. The courtyard includes mature native trees that were incorporated into the design, with plaques identifying their genus.

A dramatic five-story living wall of climbing green vines cleverly obscures the view of the world beyond the hotel walls. If you want to cool off, take a dip in the sapphire blue pool beneath

A dramatic five-story living wall of climbing green vines cleverly obscures the view of the world beyond the hotel walls. If you want to cool off, take a dip in the sapphire blue pool beneath

The stunning swimming pool is shielded on one side by a 50-foot-high living wall of vines.

 

The Suite Life

Guests can experience accommodations reflecting the stately colonial era, with the comfort of modern amenities. Each room has a personal butler and a spacious suite set amid the tranquil tropical grounds.

San showed us two of these opulent suites, which any guest would be remiss not to let their worries float away in the idyllic setting.

 

Rajah Brooke Suites

The Rajah Brooke Suite’s bedroom

The Rajah Brooke Suite’s bedroom

The charming porch is a highlight of the Rajah Brooke Suite

The charming porch is a highlight of the Rajah Brooke Suite

Who wouldn’t want to take a bath in this adorable tub?

Who wouldn’t want to take a bath in this adorable tub?

There are a total of three Rajah Brooke Suites. The rooms include a personal bar, pre-loaded iPod, four-poster king-size bed and walk-in wardrobe. The tiled veranda has a daybed and a rattan rocking chair. The spacious bathroom with dual washbasins leads to a private garden patio with an outdoor rain shower.

 

Louis Leonowens Suite (the Pool Suite)

The sitting room of the Louis Leonowens Suite, better known as the Pool Suite

The sitting room of the Louis Leonowens Suite, better known as the Pool Suite

The Leonowens Suite’s bedroom

The Leonowens Suite’s bedroom

This spacious suite is as luxurious as it gets. Consisting of a large sitting room with a library of curated books and comfortable sofa and chairs, it would be easy to never want to leave. This room even comes with a private plunge pool. Elephant-motif sculptures and black and white framed photos of old Chiang Mai on the walls evoke the city’s history.

If you’re looking for distinctive luxury lodgings with a glimpse into Chiang Mai’s colonial past, 137 Pillars House has it all and then some. –Duke


137 Pillars House
2 Soi 1, Nawatgate Road
Tambon Wat Gate
Muang Chiang Mai, 50000 Thailand

9 Tips for Navigating the Fes Medina — and Making It Out Alive

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But Fez, Morocco is an intense city to explore. Read these tips before you go.

A donkey overpacked with boxes is about as much of a traffic jam you’ll encounter in the Fès medina

Fès is a city of discoveries. You never know what lies around the next corner. You cannot imagine the beauty that hides behind a plain wall once that wooden door opens.

As such, though, it can be intimidating as well. I’m not gonna lie: That first day we had booked to explore the medina on our own, we were hesitant to leave the riad. We really had to work up our courage. Because once you step foot outside the door, you have to be prepared to not only get lost, but also to deal with local men making snide comments, hoping to get you to pay them to act as guides.

For the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Landmarks like mosque towers don’t really help you find your way around the medina — there are lots of them, and once you turn a corner, they’re gone

1. Get a guide on your first day.

It’s nice to put yourself in someone else’s hands on your first day in Fès. Our guide, Abdul, was fantastic, and we just followed him around as he led us to the major sites. It’s nice to get them out of the way, know you’ve ticked the “important” stuff off your list, and that you have nothing left but to shop and eat (and hit a hammam for a spa day).

 

2. Pay close attention to how to get to the Blue Gate.

It all comes back to the Blue Gate, it seems. We took a daytrip to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubilis, and had a guide from the riad lead us to the Blue Gate just outside of the medina to meet our driver (there aren’t any cars allowed in the medina — and anyway they wouldn’t fit on the narrows twists and turns).

I literally just kept track of the major turns we made: left, left, right, right, right. And that was all we needed to retrace our steps the following day. Sure, we took a turn too soon a couple of times, but just backtracked once we hit a dead end. We got back to the Blue Gate eventually. And from there you can hit one of the major thoroughfares of the medina.

You never know what lies around the next corner in Fès. It might be a bunch of roosters tied to a cage in front of a gorgeous doorway

3. Ignore the hustlers.

As mentioned, you’ll pass young men every so often who want to con you into paying them to act as guides. “There’s nothing that way,” they’ll tell you. “The Blue Gate isn’t down there,” they’ll say. Don’t pay them any mind. Unless, of course, you truly are hopelessly lost. And then agree to a reasonable fee before you have them lead you back to your hotel or guesthouse.

We didn’t end up having to do this in Fès but did so twice in Marrakech.

 

4. Chat with your fellow travelers over breakfast.

Because we talked with a lovely British couple, Susan and Colin, our first morning at Dar Bensouda, we learned about the gardens (which happened to be closed for the Sacred Music Festival, but still) and the tapas bar across the street, Mezzanine (a welcome change from couscous and tagines).

They also told us about the Ruined Garden, which was close to our riad, and ended up being our favorite restaurant in Fès.

 

5. Follow the signs.

One of the best ideas Fassi business owners ever had was to put up small rectangular signs throughout the medina. Coming back from the souks or the Blue Gate, we started noticing signs for nearby dars and riads (guesthouses). After a day or so, we knew which ones would lead us close enough to our own lodgings that we could find our way.

We also knew that there were signs that led from Riad Dar Bensouda to the Ruined Garden. So once we passed that, we followed the signs back to our temporary home. This gets a bit tricky — you have to turn a corner and then glance back to make sure there’s a sign pointing back to the restaurant. But for the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Abdul took us to the narrowest street in the medina:

6. Walk with confidence.

This was advice given to us by Susan and Colin. It really did help put some of the would-be guides in their place. They’d look at us, walking with a purpose, and then go back to their conversations.

To help get you into the mindset, imagine yourself a local. Or at least someone who’s been in the city for some time.

This was harder to do when we made a wrong turn, hit a dead end and had to walk back past a group of men. But fake it till you make it. If they say something, just tell them, “We’re good.”

 

7. Try your smartphone.

We didn’t have a data plan abroad, so we didn’t use use our phones. But fellow travelers said that there were Google Maps or another app that was surprisingly helpful for navigating the medina. I’m a bit skeptical, given the labyrinthian nature of this ancient city — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

A butcher in one of the more-populated areas of the medina

8. Let yourself get lost.

Everyone doles out this advice. And it’s all well and good, as long as you’re not trying to find something specific. For our third day in Fès, we had nothing planned but wandering the medina and shopping. And that was the day we didn’t worry if we didn’t know where we were going — just so long as we were back in the safety of our riad by dark.

 

9. Friday is a great day to have as an early day in Fès.

This is the day of worship for Muslims. So wandering on Friday is actually a lot more chill. You’ll get hassled less, as mosques keep many of the people away. As an added bonus, shops that are open are often willing to give a good deal since business will be slow.


As I mentioned, the Fès medina can be intimidating. But by following this advice, you should be able to navigate the seemingly endless twists and turns on your own…somewhat successfully. –Wally

Ajanta Caves: 8 Tips Before You Go

The Ajanta Caves outside of Aurangabad, India

The Ajanta Caves outside of Aurangabad, India

Stay in Aurangabad and be prepared to explore this ancient Buddhist monastery carved out of the mountainside.



Tip 1: Head off the beaten path.

If you like going all Indiana Jones on your vacation, as Wally and I do, consider adding the Ajanta and Ellora Caves to your India itinerary. These spots aren’t too well known among Western tourists — you’ll mostly see Indians and Buddhist monks from Southeast Asia.

By midday, the ground was intensely hot, making our barefoot trek across the rocks like walking over coals.

 

Tip 2: Decide if you have time to hit both Ajanta and Ellora.

We had two days in Aurangabad, so we were able to visit both sets of caves. The concierge pretty much insisted that we visit Ajanta first, and we couldn’t figure out why. After we had explored both, we wondered if this was because Ajanta, which are entirely Buddhist, might be a bit of a letdown after the diversity of the Ellora site.

 

Tip 3: Stay in Aurangabad.

Ajanta is nearly two hours away from Aurangabad, a big city with an airport that works as a good base for both the Ajanta and Ellora Caves.

 

Tip 4: Make sure you understand where you’ll meet your driver.

We arranged transport to the Ajanta Caves through our hotel, Lemon Tree.

The driver who had picked us up the evening before told us he would be there promptly at 8 a.m. so that we could beat the throngs.
What we did not know was that he actually meant a driver from the hotel — not necessarily him, and that said driver would not come into the hotel lobby to announce he had arrived. We’re not sure that this is the norm, but he waited outside until we went out to him.  

Thankfully, a concierge working that morning realized this and directed us to the vehicle after we had sat in the lobby for 45 minutes.


Tip 5: Beware the touts.

After reaching the parking lot outside the caves, we passed through an open-air market with aggressive touts, a couple of which approached us and asked our names and where we were from. They offered each of us a small quartz crystal, pressing them into the palms of our hands and saying, “No money — you visit my shop after.” 

Believe us — they’ll remember you. We did visit their shops, hardball haggled (going into other tents to compare prices) and scored some good deals.


Tip 6: Take your shoes with you.

We boarded a tour bus and soon caught our first glimpse of the horseshoe-shaped bend in the Waghora River gorge where the caves are located. 

As it was required for us to remove our sandals prior to entering the caves, we decided to leave them at Cave 1 rather than putting them on and taking them off every single time.

We failed to realize that there were 29 caves in all, and by midday the ground was intensely hot, making parts of our barefoot trek across the rocks like walking over coals.

The best thing to do is bring a pair of shoes you can easily slip on and off before entering each cave.

Tip 7: Learn a bit about how these caves and paintings were made.

After you enter the dimly lit cave interiors, your eyes begin to adjust, revealing frescoes depicting the magical Jataka stories about the previous incarnations of Buddha, in both human and animal form.

The oldest caves date back to the 2nd century BCE, with a more elaborately painted addition from the 6th century BCE.

Interiors of many of the cave surfaces are covered with a plaster mixture consisting of clay, lime, hay and dung.

Paintings were made while the plaster was wet. Oxide red and yellow were created from ochre, black from soot, white from the clay mineral kaolin, lime and green from another local mineral. You’ll occasionally see blue, which came from pulverized semiprecious lapis lazuli.


Tip 8: Get your head around the fact that these caves were once a Buddhist monastery.

The caves are comprised of two types. The chaitya (prayer halls) were excavated around 200 BCE and were among the first used purely for congregational worship. The viharas (monasteries) contain chapels as well as small cubical dormitory cells where monks once slept.

The site was abandoned in 477 after the sudden death of Ajanta's most important sponsor, Emperor Harisena.

It must have been incredible when English hunter John Smith accidentally rediscovered the largest of the caves, later named Cave 10, in 1819 in the middle of chasing a tiger. –Duke